Tuna fishing in the Northwest is a relatively new attraction, especially for sports fishermen and women, when compared to the long history of salmon and steelhead fishing. However, more and more anglers are joining the fleet of sport boats that head 20-75 miles off shore in search of the juvenile albacore tuna that make their way up the west coast every summer. Here are three different techniques for catching these silver and blue rockets that are equal parts feisty and tasty.
Fast Trolling- One of the most popular and accessible tactics for catching albacore tuna is trolling. Fast trolling is done at speeds between 6-9 knots, typically with pretty heavy gear. Lures commonly trolled at fast speeds include feather and rubber-skirted jigs or “clones,” large floating and diving plugs like Rapala’s X-Raps, and cedar plugs. Trolling uses a combination of the boat’s prop-wash and action created by the lures to simulate a commotion that tuna would associate with feeding. The tuna see the action and believe it is bait in the water and possibly other fish feeding on the bait, and come to the surface to bite the gear- this is commonly referred to as “raising fish.” Often, gear is deployed on standard fishing rods with heavy main line and leader, but anglers will also use gear on “hand lines,” which are typically 200 pound test blue cords. Troll gear must be heavy enough to withstand the force a 30 or 40 pound albacore exerts when it hits a lure going 8 knots in one direction as it swims full speed in the opposite direction. Fast trolling is an effective way to locate fish when it is difficult to find other signs of tuna being present, such as bait, debris on the water, jumping fish or diving birds.
Slow Trolling- At times during the season, conditions and fishing pressure cause the tuna to stop biting fast trolled gear. That may be because fast trolling does a bad job of imitating what the fish might be currently feeding on. Slowing down the troll is one way to change your presentation to try to incite a bite. Typically, this is done at speeds between 2-6 knots. While slow trolling it is better to focus on running plugs- cedar or the floating and diving variety, as well as “swimbaits.” Swimbaits are rubber fish threaded onto a lead-headed jig hook (often 2 ounces). These three lures all perform well at lower speeds, feather and skirted jigs are designed to skip across the surface at higher speeds and do not perform as well as the troll slows down. Likewise, the swimbaits that fish well at low speeds are less effective at high speeds.
The Stop- Once you hook one or multiple fish on the troll or you simply find an area where you think tuna are schooled up, it is time to stop the boat and fish with the ocean’s drift. Typically, the best way to start a stop is to hook two or more fish on the troll, attempt to raise the school of tuna towards the boat, and then use a variety of methods to keep them there as you hook and land more fish. A common way to attract fish to the boat is chumming. Most boats use a combination of live and dead baitfish thrown in the water to help draw fish towards the boat. If the fish are not near the surface, vertical jigging is a good way to draw them up. Vertical jigging employs metal cylindrical, square, diamond or flat-sided jigs, also called “iron” that are dropped straight below the boat to just below whatever depth the tuna are believed to be holding, and then retrieved with an erratic jigging motion. While this is being done, other fishermen will often cast and retrieve swimbaits, which fish much closer to the surface. A swim bait rod can also be casted, and then placed in a rod holder, where the action of the ocean swells help keep the swimbait looking lively. Whether it is the fish hooked on the troll, or a fish hooked on the stop, it is important to try to keep one fish in the water while others attempt to entice another bite. The hooked fish in the water helps attract other tuna to the area. Live bait is the other tactic typically used on stops. Once the school of fish is near the surface, a live baitfish can be hooked onto the line, and then free-spooled to allow the fish to swim away. The angler can assist in pulling line off the reel, finding the balance between allowing the bait fish to swim away from the boat, and having too much slack in the line. When a tuna zeroes in on the bait fish and picks it up, line will start to peel quickly off the reel. Slowly engaging the drag buries the hook into to tuna’s mouth and the battle is on!
Because Oregon and Washington currently have no limit on number of rods in the water per angler, and tuna often feed in schools, tuna fishing often results in situations where every person in the boat has a fish on. Sometimes, there are more fish on than there are anglers to retrieve them. That is the joy of tuna fishing! Go out prepared to attract and catch tuna with a whole arsenal of options, because you never know what they might be interested in on a particular day.